The Brexit fallout
We thought we knew what it would look like.
The queues of trucks would stretch back from Dover through the Kent countryside, massive lorry parks would be full and there would be scuffles between angry hauliers and the police.
We did see these things but only before Christmas, after the French shut the border claiming that Covid-19 had forced them to take action.
Since the UK left the Brexit transition phase on January 1, there have not been the logjams in Kent we had braced ourselves to expect. Operation Brock, which we fought so hard to make sure included the prioritisation of seafood consignments, has not been needed.
Indeed, the traffic is flowing reasonably smoothly through to Folkestone and the Channel ports.
But this serenity on the surface is masking turbulence underneath. Just because we cannot see the queues, that doesn’t mean things have been going well, on the contrary, there have been problems – serious problems – and it is difficult to envisage how they will be fixed.
That is because the biggest issue at stake here is not speed of delivery: it is reliability.
This is a point we have been making repeatedly to government
ministers. We hope it is getting through but it may need to be drummed in even harder.
Our members were used to getting salmon to the main fish market in Boulogne-sur-Mer on a day-one-to-day-two schedule. Salmon could be harvested in the early hours of one day and be in Boulogne the next.
But what was most important was that this delivery schedule was reliable. Our members could guarantee delivery on a set timetable.
At the moment, that crucial reliability just is not there. There have been IT problems in France, system failures in the UK, confusion over documentation, hard copies not matching electronic versions and delays in Scotland because of the need to process thousands of new export health certificates.
These issues don’t plague every consignment and most get resolved within a few hours but the effect is the same – exports from the UK are not as reliable as they need to be.
Our members have to be able to tell their customers the fish will be with them when they want it. Telling them the fish might be with them on a certain day, but without that guarantee, is akin to an empty promise.
If the customers cannot be sure they will get Scottish salmon when they want it, they will just go to our competitors. They may feel salmon from Norway or the Faroes is not as good as ours and fish from Iceland might also take longer to arrive; but what our competitors can still guarantee is reliability and, until we can get that back, the prognosis is bleak.
The system needs to work well, not once or twice a week, but every day.
Indeed, every day in which there is a problem sets back our efforts to secure customers for the long-term.
There is an added dimension here which also needs to be taken into account. There seems to be an assumption among some in Whitehall and Holyrood that, if the “teething problems”, as they see them, can be sorted out now, everything is going to be fine in the long term.
What few of them realise – and which again we have tried to stress – is that the volumes of salmon being sent to France now are only a fraction of what they will be in two, or three, months’ time.
Because of the worries over reliability, the wariness of customers and the uncertain prices, Scottish producers have been holding back. They have been keeping fish in the water, delaying or cancelling harvests and doing all they can to put off European exports until the situation stabilises.
Some are only harvesting half of what they would normally do in January and February. These fish will have to go to market in the Spring, along with the normal harvests of salmon due to head to the continent at that time anyway.
Our farmers work on a three-year cycle and there are fish being grown in hatcheries which will need to go to sea later this year. Those farms need to be empty of adult salmon for the cycle to continue.
So its not just a question of sorting out the current “teething problems’; it is about building in enough resilience in the system to cope with the increased production we are going to see over the next few months. At the moment, there is no slack in the system. In fact, the system can barely cope.
Yes, there are loads getting to France on a day-one-to-day-two schedule now but only thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the hauliers and the teams from Food Standards Scotland processing the export health certificates in Scotland.
Everybody involved at the three hubs dealing with certificates for the EU is working flat out to get trucks processed and through the depots.
They are only managing to achieve day-two deliveries for Scotland’s biggest producers by prioritising single load, single commodity consignments.
Any orders which are too small for one truck and have to be grouped with others are generally not getting day-two delivery at all.
So how those environmental health officers and haulage managers will cope when production really does get ramped up is anybody’s guess.
For the last two years, an awful lot of people have been working behind the scenes to try to mitigate as many of the risks as possible. We all knew there would be problems and that has proved to be the case.
What I think few people appreciated, particularly in government, was the vital role that reliability plays. There was an assumption that Scottish salmon sold well because of its quality, its provenance and the speed with which it could be sent to market.
These first few weeks outside the EU have shown, in the starkest terms, that it is reliability that is the key and until that returns, it is going to be very hard to get back to even close to where we were before.
Hamish Macdonell is Director of Strategic Engagement with The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation